By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
In a year where there are no easy games or easy opponents in the Frontier Conference, the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team still managed to draw one of the toughest teams in its conference opener
The newly revamped and No. 22-ranked UM-Western Bulldogs will be in Havre tonight to take on the Lights at 8 p.m. at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
"I've been a part of this league for 10 years as either a player or a coach," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "And I've never seen it this good from top-to-bottom."
To put it simply, the Frontier Conference is loaded with top talent and tough teams and the Bulldogs could be the poster boys for it.
No team in the Frontier has underwent such a complete makeover as Western.
The Bulldogs (11-5) welcomed in three transfers - two from Division I schools and another familiar name - to its starting lineup to go with a solid core of returnees.
"They really had some nice off season transfers that really have given them a lift so far," Huse said. "A lot of people will argue that Matt Luedtke and Bo Segeberg are two of the finest players to play in recent years."
Luedtke, who spent his prep days in Ronan, originally went to the University of Montana. After redshirting for the Griz, Luedtke followed assistant coach Pryor Orser to the Colorado School of Mines for three seasons.
After playing three seasons, Luedtke decided to come back closer to home for his senior year. Thus far, he hasn't disappointed, leading the Frontier in scoring at 24.4 points per game. He has already made 75 three-pointers this season and is fifth in the conference in free-throw percentage.
Northern's Landen Grant will draw the unenviable task of guarding Luedtke.
"I drew Luedtke detail," Grant joked. "He is tough. He wants to use a hard dribble to create space and then elevate and shoot over you. He's a great shooter, but he's also strong and can get to the rack of the dribble."
Said Huse: "Luedtke played in tough games every night at his old school. You don't ever completely stop a player like that, you just do whatever you can, locate him early, get help and try to contain him."
As if Luedtke didn't cause enough headaches, he is complimented by 6-10 Montana State transfer Bo Segeberg, who is third in the Frontier in scoring at 19.8 points per game and first in rebounding at 8.94 boards per game.
"How often do you see a 6-10 post player that can really play in the Frontier Conference?" Huse said. "Segeberg will be the biggest player we've faced all season."
Also joining Western is former Chester standout and one-time Northern player Jeff Graham. After playing last year for Carroll College, Graham went to Western in search of more playing time and found plenty. He is definite threat from three-point range and handles some of the point guard duties.
But Western isn't just about transfers. The core of Brandon Day, Jeff Feenstra, Tyler Palmer and Derek Hibbert all return from last year and are somewhat undeservingly overlooked.
Palmer is averaging 14 points per game, Day is a two-time all-conference selection, Hibbert leads the conference in assists at 7.50 a game and Feenstra is a solid all-around player.
"Western is as deep as it's ever been since I've been at Northern," Huse said. "The other kids had a lot of success before this year. You don't just have to guard the two main guys, you have to guard the whole team."
This year's Northern squad has built its foundation on defense and it will certainly be tested.
"These kids in our league don't need a step to get open and exploit you," Huse said. "They only need a half-step. We need to be as sharp defensively as we've ever been."
While Western has the national ranking and was picked to finish near the top of the Frontier, Northern was not. It's something that Huse has reminded his team often this season.
"We want to keep in mind that we weren't picked to finish high and people in the conference aren't expecting much from us," he said. "We need to come out free-swinging and play like we have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Even though it may not seem like it, the Lights' have a second game on Saturday against Montana Tech.
The Orediggers (5-11) aren't a mystery to Northern. Both schools played at preseason tourney earlier this season, allowing each school to watch the other play. The program certainly isn't foreign to Huse, who was a player, an assistant coach and a candidate for the head coaching job at Tech.
However, playing against his old school isn't quite as big as it was a few years ago.
"I think that first year, coach was really excited to play Tech," Grant said. "But anymore, most people associate Coach Huse with Northern not Tech."
Said Huse: "It's definitely worn off. My thoughts and focus is 100 percent on this team, this school and this community."
Obviously, though Huse and his players won't have 100 percent of their focus on Tech until Saturday. Still, he knows the Diggers are a good team regardless of their record.
"Tech is pretty big and athletic and definitely improved from last year," Huse said. "We've been really focused on the task at hand which is Western."
Tech is led by junior college transfer Davin Blixt, who is second in the Frontier in scoring at 21.2 points per game. Blixt is averaging five three-pointers made per game and has sank 80 treys on the year. Point guard Luke Harman is averaging 119 points and 4.9 assists a game.
Perhaps more than anything for Northern, the mentality of playing conference games is the biggest key for the weekend.
"Coach has done a good job of reminding us that we can't get away with some things in conference and expect to win," Grant said. "We have to pay attention to every little detail. Every second of the game is important and could be a difference maker."